Farsi    Arabic    English   

Crimean Prospects[362]

Frederick Engels

Beyond an imperfect list of the British officers killed and wounded, the journals brought by the steamer America—and we have examined them with care—add scarcely anything to our previous knowledge of the circumstances attending the capture of the southern side of Sevastopol. It is true that there is a plenty of speculation as to both the causes and the consequences of Gorchakoff's sudden abandonment of a place so long and so desperately defended; and among such speculations those of our correspondents at London and Paris are eminently worthy of attention. But there are some points of view and some considerations which neither of these writers, opposite as are their views, seems to have dwelt upon with the necessary care, or to have given the due amount of importance.

Precisely what turn matters now will take in the Crimea depends to a great extent on the causes which induced the Russians to give up the south side. That purely tactical and strategical motives were completely foreign to this sudden resolution, is evident. Had Gorchakoff considered the south side, and even the Karabelnaya, untenable as soon as the Malakoff should have fallen, he would not have thrown up so many internal defenses in that suburb. Though the ultimate success of the siege might be considered assured by the taking of that commanding point, yet from four to six weeks breathing time might have been gained by a stubborn defense, first of the inner rocks of the suburb, and then of the town proper. To judge from the best maps, plans and models, there was no necessity whatever in a mere tactical or strategical light to abandon so hastily what had been fended with such tenacity. Military science alone cannot account for a step which can yet scarcely be attributed to the confusion and fright caused by an unexpected and decisive defeat. Necessities of a different nature must have been active to force Gorchakoff to a step which compromises his military position and career so seriously as ' this.

There are two possibilities only. Either the morale of the Russian soldiers was so completely broken up that it would have been impossible to rally them in anything like order behind the inner lines of defense, so as to continue the struggle, or else they had begun to run short of provisions, not only within Sevastopol but in the camp without. The all but uninterrupted series of defeats to which the Russian army had been exposed, from Oltenitza and Chetatea to the Chernaya, and the assault of Sept. 8, must certainly have completely destroyed the spirit of the defenders of Sevastopol; and all the more, as they consisted principally of the same troops who were beaten on the Danube and later at Inkerman[363]. The Russians have rather dull moral feelings, and can stand defeats longer than most troops; but no army in the world can hold together forever when it is beaten by every enemy it meets, and when to a long list of defeats it can oppose nothing except the negative satisfaction of its tenacious and lengthened resistance, and a solitary example of successful, active defense, like that of the 18th June[364]. But such a resistance in a besieged place is of itself demoralizing in the long run. It implies hardships, want of rest, sickness, and the presence, not of that acute danger which braces, but of that chronic danger which must ultimately relax the mind. The rapidly succeeding defeats on the Chernaya and at the Malakoff must have completed the demoralization, and it is more than likely that Gorchakoff's troops in the town were no longer fit to be led against the enemy. And as the Malakoff commanded the bridge to the other side, and the French guns might any day have destroyed it, relief became impossible, while retreat might at least save the troops. It is not astonishing that this demoralization should at last seize the garrison; it is astonishing that it had not done so long before.

There are also some very strong symptoms that want of provisions for the army generally had a great deal to do with Prince Gorchakoff's sudden retreat. The interruption of Russian navigation in the Sea of Azoff, though it had not that immediate effect which the British and French Press, then so much in want of some success, expected it to have, must nevertheless in the long run prove troublesome to the Russians, as it confined them to one single line of operations, and thereby limited their supplies. The immense difficulty of transporting victualing stores, ammunition and forage from Kherson through a thinly-populated steppe country must have been greatly increased when this road became the only one by which the army could be provided. The means of transport, brought together by requisition from the Ukraine and Don Provinces, must finally have been used up; horses and draft-oxen must have been sacrificed in great numbers, both by overwork and scantiness of provender; and the nearest provinces once being exhausted, it became more and more difficult to replace the necessary stock. This shortness of supplies would show itself at first, not so much in Sevastopol (where reserve stores must have been kept up for the event of the place being invested on the north side too), as in the camp above Inkerman, at Bakshiserai, and on the line of march of the reenforcements. The reports of the allied commanders had more than once adverted to this being the case; but other circumstances too indicate that such must have been the fact. By this impossibility of feeding even the troops now in the Crimea, we can alone explain why the two divisions of grenadiers so long on the march, and now said to be about Perekop, were not allowed to advance and to partake in the battle on the Chernaya, and why, notwithstanding the better half of the troops advancing to relieve Sevastopol was thus kept back, that battle was yet ventured, though with a force ridiculously small in proportion to the task expected from it.

Thus all indications point to this, that both demoralization of the greater portion of the Russian troops, and want of supplies for the army in the field, induced Gorchakoff not to stake too much on delaying, for a few days, the fall of a fortress which had become untenable. He profited by the last chance of saving the garrison, and he would seem to have done right; for according to all appearances he would have had to leave it to its fate, to collect his field-army, and to retire into the interior of the Crimea, if not to Perekop. In this case, the garrison of the south side would soon have been compelled either to cross stealthily to the north side or to capitulate; and the north side, too, once cut off from all chance of ever being relieved, and garrisoned by demoralized troops, would have been starved into submission.

So long as the Russians had a chance not only of keeping their army in the Crimea up to something like a force equaling that of the Allies but were even expecting reenforcements which would make it far outnumber its opponents, the north side of Sevastopol was a position of immense importance[365]. To hold the north side by a garrison while the field army stood where it did up to the latest news we have received, was to bring the allied army on the plateau of the Heracleatic Chersonese. It was to exclude their ships from Sevastopol Bay, and to deprive them of a proper naval base of operations nearer than the Bosphorus, for neither Kamiesh nor Balaklava can pass for such a thing. So long as the Russians were able to keep the field in the Crimea the north side was as much the key to the whole of the Crimea and to what gives the whole country any military and naval importance as the Malakoff was to the south side. But from the moment the Russians are unable to hold the field, the north side has no longer any great importance. It is a fortified position of a certain strength, but which if regularly besieged by sufficient forces is doomed to fall, for relief there can then be none.

This may seem astonishing after the great importance ascribed, and rightly too, to the north side. And yet it is quite correct. The whole of this war has been, in appearance, a war of fortifications and sieges, and has in the eyes of superficial observers completely annihilated the progress made by Napoleon's rapid maneuver, thus carrying back the art of warfare to the days of the Seven Years' War[366]. But in reality nothing is more contrary to fact. Fortresses and groups of fortresses have no other importance now-a-days than as the fixed points on which an army in the field supports itself in its movements. Thus the camp at Kalafat was a bridge-head allowing Omer Pasha to menace the Russians in flank; thus Silistria, Rustchuk, Varna, Shumla, were the four salient angles, so to say, of a large fortified camp into which he could always retreat, and where he could not be followed unless two at least of those salient angles were taken or neutralized. Thus Sevastopol formed the pivot of the Russian army in the Crimea, and whenever that army was outnumbered or otherwise checked, Sevastopol allowed it breathing time until fresh reenforcements had come up. To the Allies Sevastopol was a Russian naval center to be destroyed, a naval base of operations to be gained; to the Russians it was the possession of the Crimea, because it was the only position to be held against far superior numbers until relieved. Thus the ultimate decision always rested with the armies in the field, and the importance of fortresses depended, not on their natural or artificial strength or intrinsic value, but on the protection and support (appui) they could give to the field army. Their value has become relative. They are no longer independent factors in the game of war, but merely valuable positions which it may or may not be expedient to defend by every means and to the last extremity. This the Sevastopol affair proves more than any previous occurrence. Sevastopol, like all really modern fortresses, takes the place of a permanently-fortified camp. As long as the disposable force is sufficient to defend that camp, as long as supplies are plentiful, the communications with the main base of operations secure, especially as long as that camp held by a strong army prevents the enemy from going past it without exposing his own safety—so long that camp is of first-rate importance and may baffle the enemy for a whole campaign. But if such is no longer the case; if the defending force suffers check after check, runs short of provisions, risks having its communications cut off and being reduced to the fate of the Austrians at Ulm in 1805[367] then it is high time to prefer the safety of the army to the abstract value of the position and to retreat at once to another place offering greater advantages.

This seems to be now the situation of the Russians. The greater part of their original active army—fourteen divisions out of twenty-four—is engaged, and has been partly destroyed in the Crimea, and what they have of reserves and militia, or other new formations, can stand no comparison with the troops they have lost. They will certainly do well not to send any more men to that dangerous peninsula, and indeed to abandon it as soon as they can. The Allies are far superior to them in numbers and especially in spirit. With Gorchakoff's present army to risk a battle in the field would be to solicit defeat. He may be turned either by the south coast and the valley of the Salghir, or by Eupatoria. Either operation would force him to give up his communication with the north side, never to regain it, for the. numerical superiority of the Allies is increasing every day. It would seem that the best he can do is to make as bold a front as possible, while he prepares everything for blowing up the northern forts, and to steal a march or two on his opponents. The sooner he gets to Perekop the better. This is especially the case if the report we have from Paris be true that the Allies began sending an army to Eupatoria immediately after getting possession of Sevastopol. If they act with vigor, either in that direction or along the south coast and the passes of the Chatyr Dagh, the campaign must speedily close, leaving them in possession of the Crimea. So far as we can see the only mistakes now in their power are a serious front attack on the Russian position above Inkerman, or a week's inaction. The next steamer, due here to-morrow night, can hardly fail to settle the question as to what they mean to do.

Written about September 14, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4508, October 1, 1855,
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1080, October 2, 1855 as a leading article;
an abridged German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 435, September 18, 1855,
marked with the sign x
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[362] Part of this article was reproduced by Marx in his report for the Neue Oder-Zeitung published on September 18, 1855 under the heading "Events in the Crimea". In the present edition this version is given as an item by Marx and Engels (see this volume, pp. 531-33).

The first and last paragraphs of the English version contain insertions made by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune. The London correspondent mentioned in them was probably A. Pulszky.

[363] At Oltenitza (south-east Wallachia) in the Danubian theatre, the Russian and Turkish forces fought one of the first battles of the Crimean War (November 4, 1853). A Russian detachment attacked the Turkish forces which had crossed to the left bank of the Danube. The attack failed, but the Turkish troops were soon compelled to withdraw to the right bank. Engels described the battle in his 'article "The War on the Danube" (see present edition, Vol. 12, pp. 516-22).

The battle of Chetatea, in the Danubian theatre, between the Turkish and Russian armies, took place in the early period of the Crimean War, on January 6, 1854. It resulted from the Turks' attempts to take the offensive in the Kalafat area, at the juncture of Wallachia, Serbia and Bulgaria. After a stiff fight the Russian detachment was compelled to retreat under pressure from considerable Turkish forces (about 18,000 men), but following the arrival of Russian reinforcements the Turks were forced to go over to the defensive and eventually retreated to Kalafat. For a description of these events see Engels' article "The Last Battle in Europe" (present edition, Vol. 12, pp. 579-82).

The battle of the Chernaya: On August 16, 1855 Russian troops attacked the French and Sardinians on the river Chernaya about twelve kilometres southeast of Sevastopol in an attempt to weaken the Allies' siege of the city. However, the Russians were repulsed and suffered heavy losses due to inadequate preparation of the attack and errors on the part of the Russian command. Engels analysed this important episode of the Crimean War in his article "The Battle of the Chernaya" (see this volume, pp. 504-12).

In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

[364] On the Allies' abortive assault on Sevastopol of June 18, 1855:
On June 18, 1855, one of the major battles of the Crimean War was fought at Sevastopol, ending in defeat for the Allies. The nearly nine-month-long siege of the city, the destruction caused by the bombardment, and the capture by French and British troops on June 7, 1855 of the outlying fortifications, the Selenghinsk and Volhynsk redoubts and the Kamchatka lunette (which had been erected by the defenders in the course of the siege) induced the Allied command to undertake a full-scale assault on the Southern (Korabelnaya) part of the city. It was launched on the fortieth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815. The assault was preceded by massive bombardment of the city from land and sea. Despite the Allies' substantial superiority in numbers, their attack, launched along the whole line of Russian fortifications at dawn on June 18, 1855, was repulsed at every point. The attackers suffered heavy losses. The fighting on June 18 showed the strength of Sevastopol's defences and the staunchness of the Russian troops. Marx gave a detailed account of the battle in his report "The Mishap of June 18.—Reinforcements"; Engels described it in his articles "From Sevastopol" and "The Late Repulse of the Allies" (see this volume, pp. 297-301, 313-19 and 328-32).

[365] Engels discussed the significance of the Northern side of Sevastopol in an earlier article, "The Siege of Sevastopol", published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4236, November 15, 1854 (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 505-09).

[366] The Seven Years' War—the war of 1756-63 between Britain and Prussia, on the one hand, and France, Russia and Austria, on the other. It was caused mainly by colonial and commercial rivalry between Britain and France and the clash between Prussia's policy of aggrandizement and the interests of Austria, France and Russia. In the course of the war the Prussian army of Frederick II won a series of victories over the French and Austrians, but suffered a number of serious defeats in battles against the Russian forces. As a result of the war, Britain expanded her colonial empire at the expense of France. Austria and Prussia retained, by and large, their former frontiers.

[367] In October 1805, during the war of the Third Coalition (Austria, Britain, Russia and Sweden) against Napoleonic France, the Austrian army of General Mack was encircled by the French at Ulm and forced to surrender.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.525-530), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME0951en.html